Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

“Imperial Casualties” — a Sermon for Memorial Day

Imperial Casualties

Memorial Day Sunday, May 29, 2011

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento, CA

Hymns: 151, 21, 159.


Music:  “Thula Klizeo,” by Joseph Shabalala, sung by Chalice Lighters Youth Choir.

Drumming Processional led by Rev. Wendy Bartel.  Piano Offertory/Postlude:  “America the Beautiful,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Shared Offering: Turning Point Community Programs (half of all donations received before June 1 will be shared with this local organization, which serves people living with psychiatric challenges so they might achieve a stable life.  Thank you for your generosity.

 Responsive Reading — “The Limits of Tyrants,” by Frederick Douglas

Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing up the ground.

They want rain without thunder and lightning: they want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters.

This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.

Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.

Find out what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice which will be imposed upon them.

The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.


Moment of Silence

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day.  In the years after the Civil War, families decorated the graves of those killed in the war, and the holiday was established in 1868.   In his poem Decoration Day, Unitarian poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow says to the fallen:

Your silent tents of green

We deck with fragrant flowers;

Yours has the suffering been,

The memory shall be ours.

Please join me in a moment of silence.



When they catch up with Jesus of Nazareth, they try to trick him.  They want him to incriminate himself, so they can get him arrested.  They don’t like what they’ve heard about this unorthodox teacher, preacher and healer.  It’s been said he goes around saying, “The kingdom of God is near.”  Is he stoking an insurrection?

Such words are dangerous in an empire.  There’s room for one King at a time.  And this king, whose name is Caesar, promotes himself as god.

“Tell us, Master,” the gang asks Jesus, “is it right for us to pay the imperial tax to Caesar?”

If he says no, he’s a trouble maker.  If he says yes, it will undermine his preaching about the Kingdom of the true God.  The gang is asking:  “Are you with us, or against us?”

Jesus asks for a Roman coin.  He holds the shiny piece of money in the light.  “Whose face is on this coin?”  Caesar’s, they say.

“And whose name is inscribed on it?”  Caesar’s.

“Well, then, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.  And give to God what belongs to God.”  The bullies only stand there, with mouths wide open.  I picture Jesus walking away, pocketing the coin as he goes, but the Gospel of Mark doesn’t say. [Mark 12:13-17]   By the end of the story, his enemies generate enough accusations and fears to have him arrested.  The authorities try him, and hang him on a cross.

In the wake of his death, and in the shadows of the empire, his followers build a movement.   In his memory, they promote love, sacrifice, forgiveness, and radical equality among people.   Many followers die like Jesus, at the hands of imperial mobs.  Still, the movement expands.

Then, two centuries later, the emperor becomes one of them:  Constantine converts to Christianity.   How easy it is to spread the message of God’s love if you’ve got armies to back it up!  It’s much easier than prayer meetings and communion wine alone.   As the state church grows and spreads over the next millennium or so, many people die:  Jews, Pagans, and Muslims.

Infidels.  Obstacles to the march of truth.  Imperial casualties.

But let’s not forget that many Christian soldiers become imperial casualties too.  Some of them are stirred into a vengeful fighting frenzy.  Others are dragged along, unable to resist.  Whatever the reason for fighting, its result is grieving wives and fatherless children.

Written histories tell of the rise and fall of empires:  their contributions to culture, language, transportation, architecture.  But we’ll never have enough books to name all the ordinary people who are the casualties of the empires.

The United States of America begins when we fight our way free from the British Empire.  We declare:  people can govern ourselves, we don’t need a monarch to call the shots.   In our first century, the United States spreads out over this continent.  We displace or kill native peoples.  We fight Mexico and wrench away over half of its land, including California.  But in overseas affairs, the United States keeps to itself.

Wars rage in Europe, and Europeans colonize people in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.  We stay out.   In the words of conservative analyst Ivan Eland, this nation sticks to the foreign policy of its founders: the foreign policy of  “live and let live.”

Then, in 1898, we go to war with Spain.  Political fanaticism, racism, false accusations in the media.  A mystery about the sinking of a ship.  Remember the Maine!–we cry.   The Congress and President McKinley lead us into the Spanish-American War.  It brings independence for Cuba and U.S control of Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands, among others.

Though President McKinley cannot find the Philippines on a map, Congress pushes him to make it a U.S. territory.  A year later, with our soldiers over there, a shooting leads to an insurrection, which leads to a war.  The Philippine-American War is a nearly a forgotten piece of our history now, but it kills four thousand American troops.  Twenty thousand Filipino fighters die, and civilian casualties total two hundred thousand Filipinos.

This gives us a foothold for trade in Asia, corporate sugar cane plantations, and military bases.  It opens a new mission field for Christian patriots.  At the General Assembly of a Mainline Protestant denomination, Dr. George F. Penigore declares:  “We cannot ignore the fact that God has given into our hands, … the Philippine Islands, … has summoned us to go up and possess the land.”[i]

Yet a few people of faith and conscience in America do resist our wars.  They renounce our annexation of the Philippines.  The Anti-Imperialist League prints a pamphlet of testimonies about the war, given by soldiers.  One soldier says:

I deprecate this war, this slaughter of our own boys and of the Filipinos, because it seems to me that we are doing something that is contrary to our principles in the past. Certainly we are doing something that we [would] have shrunk from not so very long ago.[ii]

In 1900, William Howard Taft becomes our first civilian governor of this territory.   In a few more years, he’ll be President, and after that, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Taft is the last Unitarian to be elected president!   He’s not the first one we would choose to remember, unfortunately.  Like white men of his time and position, he speaks of “our little brown brothers” over there.  He wants to civilize them.

Hundreds of American teachers sail over.  By teaching English, we give diverse cultures their first common language.  This helps to unify the islands.  We introduce the sport of baseball, but it can’t overtake the native pastime of cock fighting.  In the Second World War, their soldiers and ours fight side by side.  We suffer atrocities together under occupation by the imperial army of Japan.  Afterwards, General Douglas MacArthur develops their army and other experts help establish their civil service.  From the start we give local control to wealthy and powerful Filipinos.  They take over when independence comes in 1946. Today, Filipinos apply to immigrate here by the hundreds of thousands.  Every year, the U.S. Navy holds open four hundred sailor positions for Filipinos.  One hundred thousand apply.[iii]  Our pop culture blends with theirs.  Specialty stores there sell items made in the USA.

In spite of our violent start in the Philippines, we stay only 46 years.  We leave without a fight.  That’s a much better achievement than the record of Europe’s empires in Africa, Southeast Asia, India and Pakistan.  Today, countries like Spain, Britain, Belgium, and France are open and civilized societies.  I’ve enjoyed visiting those countries.  Their people are friendly and gentle.  Yet those nations were ruthless in colonizing other lands and cruel in repressing independence movements.  In the words of Alexander Motyl, the behavior of the “French and British … in their Asian and African empires [amounted] to what, by today’s standards, [are] crimes against humanity.”[iv]

A reporter asks the Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization.  He says:  “I think it would be a good idea.”

Ancient Rome, Great Britain and the Soviet Union have lost their empires.  Yet ours has grown without being called an empire.  While affirming the independence of our client countries, we use military and economic pressures to get them to do what we want.  We do not annex them, but we meddle with and control them.  Consider this:

In the early 20th century we invade Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama and Colombia.  In the 1950s, our CIA engineers the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala. In the 1970s, we help to overthrow Chile’s elected president.  All elected governments, all overthrown by dictators we called friends.

Our interventions take place under Democratic presidents as well as Republican ones.  Democrat Woodrow Wilson says we should use military force to ensure that other countries “elect good men.”[v]   In the 1990s, following the first President Bush’s Gulf War, President Bill Clinton continues regular bombing in Iraq.  Perhaps it seems necessary for the containment of Iraq.  But if is necessary, why not ask for a Congressional declaration of war?   In spite of our Constitution, most of this country’s military interventions are not voted on by Congress.

Critics on the left and the right argue that our militarism directs precious resources away from our own well-being.  Even more, it enlarges the power of the Presidency and shrinks Congressional authority.[vi]  The consequence of this is a weakened system of constitutional checks and balances.  It’s easier for the government to disregard civil liberties.

Since 2001, our government has detained many suspects without charging them with crimes.  It will not let them see a lawyer.  It refuses to show evidence to justify holding them.  In the name of security, the government resists oversight by the courts or the Congress.  Last week, Congress and the President extend the so-called PATRIOT Act for four years.  Republican Senator Rand Paul challenges the act’s provisions for governmental intrusions in our lives, and questions the rush to renew the act.  He asks:  “Do we fear terrorism so much that we throw out our Constitution, and are we unwilling and afraid to debate our Constitution?”[vii]

For decades, only critics from the left labeled American foreign policy as colonialist and imperialist.  In recent years, however, neoconservatives have not only admitted that the United States is an empire, but have praised it for being so. [viii]  Using terms like, “the world’s only remaining superpower,” they insist that we have a duty to intervene in other nations.[ix]

Yet other conservatives object.  According to Ivan Eland, the guiding question for military decisions should be “Does the United States need to intervene to safeguard its security?” and not “Does [it] have the power to do so?”[x]

Why do we send people to fight?  Here are some legitimate reasons, in my view:  To stop a greater harm from happening, to protect vulnerable populations, to repel an attack or stop an invasion.

On the left, Chalmers Johnson predicts that continued military intervention will provoke more, not less, terrorism against American interests and people.  He calls this “blowback.”  It will spur the spread of more nuclear weapons to small nations.  This will lead us to perpetual war . . . for the sake of perpetual peace.  In a constant state of war, Johnson says, we will see the “principle of truthfulness [overcome by a] system of propaganda [and] disinformation.”

You can read such propaganda on temple ruins throughout the long-gone Roman Empire.  You can see that Caesar Augustus is a king, a God, and a peacemaker.  The walls proclaim his campaign slogan:  “Peace through victory.”[xi]

We can hear echoes of this when officials talk of having “pacified” an enemy city.  When President Woodrow Wilson urges Americans to enter the First World War, it will be a “war to end all wars.”  Peace through victory, peace through war.  In Vietnam, journalist Peter Arnett quotes a U.S. Army official explaining why such heavy artillery has been used against a small village:  “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” In 1900, an American General says:  “It may be necessary to kill half of the Filipinos in order that the remaining half … may be advanced to a higher plane of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords.”[xii]

In the 1990s a think tank named the Project for a New American Century advocates for “total global military domination by the United States.”  Many of its fans join the Bush Administration, including Donald Rumsfeld. While serving as Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld writes little memos to himself to spur further thought.  This memo comes from exactly 10 years ago today:  May 29, 2001.

Subject:  Important Countries.  We ought to give some thought to picking 8 or 10 important countries, asking ourselves what we think we would like them to look like five or ten years from now, and then fashioning plans to achieve that.  Certainly Ukraine would be one of them.”[xiii]

He  is thinking this way three months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and two years before our invasion of Iraq.

In 2002, the administration’s National Security Strategy makes clear its goal of “unchallenged military dominance and unquestioned American exceptionalism.”  American exceptionalism:  we’re the superpower, we make the rules, and we can remake the world.   Sounds like Caesar:  Ruler and Rule-Maker, God on Earth.

Now, lest I be accused of disloyalty, let me say:  I love my country.  I love its history, its monuments and landscapes.  I value our music, movies, and innovations.  I cherish the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and the values held in those founding documents.  And I love our people.  I grieve the losses that our people suffer:  Our families and our communities suffer when soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines are sent into harm’s way.  I grieve the harm that we cause to other people when we send our own to fight in other lands.

In the midst of a war, a sergeant from Nebraska says this:  “I am not afraid, and am always ready to do my duty, but I would like some one to tell me what we are fighting for.”  What war is the sergeant confused about?  Iraq?  The First World War?  Vietnam?  The Spanish-American War?  The sergeant’s name is Arthur H. Vickers, and he happens to be a soldier in the Philippine-American War.[xiv]   When we ask young sergeants to risk their lives, we owe them an answer.   Whatever we owe the empire, we owe more to the spirit of truth.

At the end of his two terms as president, Dwight Eisenhower warns against the “military-industrial complex.” This machine will never cease to justify its costs and expansion.

Our presidents come and go, yet overseas military entanglements grow, or stay the same.  Rarely do they shrink.  The military empire’s machine rattles on.  It spikes the nation’s debt, puts our money into weapons, overseas military bases, and high-priced contractors.  Now, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we face no strong military rival.  But our total military spending outnumbers the spending of all the other major countries combined.

The gang of men asks Jesus:  Should we pay taxes to the empire?  His reply:  Give to Caesar what belongs to him, but give to the true God your true allegiance and loyalty.             Jesus and his followers are subjects of the empire—no rights to free speech or protest.  We do have rights.  We have the Constitution.  We need only summon our courage:  to challenge the use of our tax dollars and our children for the machines of empire.


On Memorial Day, and on every day, let us proclaim our allegiance to this country, to the true values of our founding documents.

Let us proclaim loyalty to the nurture and protection of all our families and our children, and all God’s children. Let’s proclaim and promote the rights of people all over the world to choose their own government and way of life.

The true Spirit of justice and freedom will never cease its call to conscience.  May we be loyal to that true Spirit.

The divine call for peace will ever sing in the human heart.  May we have the courage to give ourselves to that song—the song of peace, justice and freedom.

So may it be.  Amen.



[i] Quoted in Maglipay Universalist by Frederick John Muir (Annapolis, Md.: 2001), p. 9.

[ii] General Reeve, lately Colonel of the Thirteenth Minnesota Regiment, quoted at

[iii] In Our Own Image:  America’s Empire in the Philippines, by Stanley Karnow (New York: Random House, 1989), p. 17.

[iv] Ivan Eland, The Empire Has No Clothes:  U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed (Oakland, Calif.: The Independent Institute, 2004), p. 40.

[v] Ivan Eland, p. 30.

[vi] When Caesar Augustus was emperor, the Roman Senate lost most of its governing powers and became a “club for wealthy aristocrats.”  Of course, these days, most United States Senators are in fact multimillionaires. With Caesar Augustus as emperor, the Roman Senate lost most of its governing powers and became a “club for wealthy aristocrats.”  Of course, a large share of United States Senators are in fact multimillionaires, yet many of our citizens are not so well off.   In the words of historian Jo-Anne Shelton, even though Roman Senators, like our own, sometimes introduced laws to benefit the masses, it was often part of a scheme to “strengthen their own positions.”[vi]

[viii] Ivan Eland, p. 2.

[ix] Ivan Eland, p.  16.

[x] Ivan Eland, p. 224.

[xi] From a lecture by John Dominic Crossan, Stone Church of Willow Glen, San Jose, Calif., October 2006.

[xii] Quoted in Maglipay Universalist by Frederick John Muir (2001), p. 9.

[xiii] “Evidence of Absence,” in Harper’s Magazine, May 2011, p. 22-23.

[xiv] Vickers, Sergeant in the First Nebraska Regiment, is quoted at



1 Comment so far
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Wonderful, courageous, appropriate sermon, Roger. Thank you for “keeping the faith!”

Comment by Bruce Hubbard

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